The Psychonaut’s Journey: 7 Technologies for Accessing Our Greatest Self
Human flourishing begins with the Self.
In Aubrey Marcus’ 2014 Seeds talk at Voice & Exit, we were taken on a journey through some of the technologies that exist for enhancing consciousness, our most fundamental notion of Self.
The archetype of the explorer of the external world is dominant in our western culture. We place high value on the external physical world. We applaud the pioneers, who venture far into outer space, sail the high seas, dive to the depths of the ocean, or build the tallest buildings.
We place our values in the happenings of the world around us, and our interaction with them. This is, in many ways the astronaut archetype of our age—that drive within the psyche of western man to explore the external world. While western culture is preoccupied with the external world, ancient eastern practices have long been dedicated to exploration of a different world; the vast inner landscape of consciousness.
While we explore upward into the atmosphere, there are those who look inside, rather than outside for meaning.
Monks who spend their lives in solitude and meditation claim to venture into chasms of the soul, pushing deep into the fractal infinity of consciousness. As we fly further externally, they venture deeper internally. Then there are Shamans, bridges between the abstract world of consciousness and the outer, physical reality, who invoke sacred substances. Whether these substances create an elaborate trick in the brain, or actually provoke mystical experience, nearly all who venture forth into this world agree that the results are dramatically transformative. These adventurers find value in deeper connection to this vast internal universe. The greek had a word that embodies the inverse of the astronaut archetype. This is pyschonaut. Psyche, meaning the spirit or mind of a man, and nautes, meaning a sailor. The psychonaut is a sailor of consciousness. And when you think of it like that, sitting in a cave meditating suddenly becomes much sexier, doesn’t it?
But not all of us will choose to close off from the external world to venture into the depths of our own consciousness. Yet, if we want to live a flourishing life, a deeper understanding and connection to this fundamental internal consciousness is critical. Consciousness is the source from which we experience our world. Even if we are deep in outer space, our experience is still a personal experience, stemming from within. The fully flourishing being will be dedicated to deeper internal flourishing, knowing that his power emanates from within, and flowers into the external world.
And if this is too woo-woo for you, try a different perspective: All of the things that we create in the external world are created from thought. You have an idea, you put it on paper or draw a sketch, then you rearrange atomic matter to create something. This began as an amorphous idea within you. Imagine the process of a skyscraper. First it is conceived in an amorphous thought form, then translated into a rough sketch, then refined. Eventually materials are sourced and cut to match the shape of the architect’s thoughts. Finally, nail by nail, the building takes on the form of physical manifestation. If all that we create externally begins internally, how well do you know yourself? How well do you know your thoughts? And are you producing the highest quality thoughts that you are capable of?
Aubrey defines consciousness as a higher, more permanent essence of Self. He then defines “technologies” in this context as any modality that can give us greater access to this higher part of ourselves. If we want to live in a flourishing world, we must create flourishing communities, and flourishing communities are composed of flourishing people. It begins with your relationship to your internal world.
What follows is a list from Aubrey of some of the many consciousness technologies that can provoke adventure into the universe within, creating the opportunity to have greater access to a this “higher self.” None of these technologies are intended to be perpetual habits, but tools that can catalyze positive changes within our consciousness to be developed further.
1) Floatation Tanks
Floatation or “isolation” tanks are enclosed structures that deprive the human body of sensory stimulation. In a light-sealed, sound proof chamber, you float in water that is pumped with hundreds of pounds of epsom salt, creating enough buoyancy to allow your body to float at the surface effortlessly. The water is heated to the exact temperature of your skin so you don’t feel it. Why the hell would I do this, you ask? When the body is deprived of sensory stimulation, the mind is less engaged with the millions of inputs that typically come from light, sound, touch, smell, etc. Within this state of mitigated stimulation, the mind is able to drop an octave and assess the greater context of one’s life. Comedian, podcast host and fellow optimizer with Aubrey at Onnit is a huge proponent of the benefits. “It’s like a seminar on my life. It shows me all the different issues in my life that I don’t like and that I need to fix and things that are bothering me and things about my own behavior that could’ve been better and things that where I’m disappointed in myself.”
As a means of opening the window into consciousness, shutting off the constant onslaught of sensory information frees us up to listen internally. Those who have tried floating know that there is something adventurous about the first time you do it. While it is certainly a technology for the psychonaut, there’s a taste of the astronaut archetype in the ritual of a float tank. You walk into a futuristic feeling lounge, then step into what looks like a miniature spaceship escape pod. The door exhales as you pull yourself shut, then you lie down in a strange water that pushes you upward, and as if you are Neo, reinserting yourself into the Matrix, you plug in. But rather than enter a world of delusion, as Neo did, you plug into the reality within to explore. And what can we explore? Joe says, “It’s one of the greatest tools ever for exploring thinking, exploring the way you think, and making an audit of all your own personal thoughts and ideas.”
Floating is also a fantastic method of psychonautic exploration for those who are uncomfortable with the use of psychedelic and/or illegal substances (which are heavily weighted on this list). As Joe says, “…if you have an aversion to drugs, which totally makes sense, If you don’t trust yourself, you don’t like the idea, you can have very introspective, psychedelic experiences naturally in the tank. Everybody should be doing it.”
Beyond pscyhonautic exploration, there is also mounting evidence indicating the very practical healing benefits tanks provide for psychological disorders. Veterans with PTSD have found floating to be an incredible consciousness technology for unravelling the knots of Post Traumatic Stress (See link in the footer for a news story about this).
If you are in Austin this June for Voice & Exit, check out Zero Gravity Institute, which is one of the best float centers in the world, and is also featured in the PTSD/Floating video in the footer.
2) Holotropic Breathwork
The practice that utilizes accelerated breathing and music of a specific vibration to induce a state of altered consciousness is know as “holotropic breathwork.” This is another technology that I have personal experience with. Aubrey says, “You can hyper-oxygenate your system, and that facilities a quieting of the reduction filter of the brain.” While the science is not entirely clear on what is happening neurologically, many experience profound and meaningful inner experiences. Often these experiences are akin to heavy psychedelic excursions, sometimes more intense than those produced by medicines like Ayahuasca. Again, this is a technology for altering consciousness that does not require putting any foreign substances into your body. However, as Aubrey advises, it is highly recommend to practice with an experienced guide. Mostly I say this not for safety reasons, but because the experience can be disconcerting. A phenomenon called tetany, where the muscles of the body tighten up, can accompany the excess oxygenation and cause an alarming reaction. Without a guide to host you through the discomfort, turning back can be easy. But the psychonaut must be willing to leave the shores of comfort to experience the inner adventure. While Breathwork may sound frightening and even bizarre, consider that CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey has outwardly expressed the benefits he has received from this practice. If you fear the call to an inner adventure, know that you are in good company with some of the greats.
NOTE: We are not allowed to advise you to take any illegal substances, unfortunately.
This is a consciousness tech that most people are familiar with, and in the US, it’s only a matter of time before the war on cannabis comes to an end. While many associate cannabis with a feel-good state of consciousness, Aubrey presents this tool in the edible form and discusses the powerful insights that can be felt regarding one’s body. “Understanding how your body works, where the discomfort is coming from, what is going on with your posture, with your muscle structure, where you are tight, where you need to strengthen—is incredibly valuable, and Marijuana is a really powerful tool to do that.” While many consciousness technologies provide deep insight into the depths of the internal landscape, Cannabis provides more than just bad ideas (which I swear are awesome at the time) and pain relief—it can teach us more about our physical bodies, clueing us in to what is out of order and what we can do to help them thrive.
The naturally occurring compound is found in several varieties of mushrooms and it induces a stark altered state of consciousness. “Mushrooms are like your really good conscious friend.” Aubrey says, “You can go out and you can party with him, and you and your friend will just hang out. Or you can sit down and have a serious conversation and really learn something.” Psilocybin reduces blood flow to the default mode network of the brain, creating an altered state that can allow the psychonaut to stop, assess the lens through which he views the external world and alter his perceptions. At least, this is one possible outcome. Most psychonauts will tell you that every experience with “shrooms” is different, and the value that is extracted is always relevant to the moment of your life.
“The effect has been scientifically demonstrated,” Aubrey says, “people who went through this clinical trial at Johns Hopkins reported overwhelmingly that it was one of the top five experiences in their life. They were able to access something that was incredibly valuable to them. Some people said it was the single most significant experience in their life.”
Psilocybin is gaining in popularity for it’s promise as treatment for multiple chronic disorders, including Depression. It is believed that Depression can result from over-connectivity within the brain. This heightened state of neurological linking can lead to rumination, which is a psychological term for the process of dwelling and expanding upon negative thoughts. A 2011 study at Oxford indicated that Psilocybin may disrupt this network, causing a sort of reset that affords the psychonaut an opportunity to halt the process of rumination, and even begin building new neural networks.
There is also early evidence to indicate that Psilocybin can heal damaged tissue in the brain. This is promising as a potential treatment for PTSD, which has a physical, as well as psychological impact on the brain.
This is another psychoactive substance technology that produces deep and unsettling altered states of consciousness. Found in Africa, the active substance in this shrub has profound effects on human addiction. You might be surprised to hear that when it comes to treating heroin addiction, Ibogaine blows traditional treatment methods out of the water. Some claim that it has a near 90% rate of success, and many who have struggled with years of heroin addiction are liberated after one 24 hour experience, though as Aubrey describes it, “it will take you through hell and back.” This is the part of the list where these substances cross the threshold from light and enjoyable, to sometimes disturbing, which is often the precursor for deep personal transformation. “[it is] horribly uncomfortable, you’re very nauseous,” Aubrey says, “but it can give you really incredible insight not only into yourself but why you have these addictive behaviors, why you are driven to do certain things.”
If we are willing to confront our own demons, we can come to a deeper understanding of what drives us. And is it really us, or the programming that we’ve become accustomed to? Even the scientific community is starting to see the implications beyond numbers and statistics. In a 2014 CNN article, Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, from Imperial College London said, “People try and run away from things and to forget, but with psychedelic drugs they’re forced to confront and really look at themselves.”
For those who are serious about flourishing, first consider exploring your own shadow to discover what foreign patterns might be driving your addictive behaviors.
The traditional plant medicine found in Peru catalyzes a deep inner experience, often accompanied by physical purging. “People think: oh, this is all woo-woo, maybe it will help me with spirituality,” but, Aubrey continues, “this helped me with business. It showed me the path of least resistance, and the path where I could implement the fullest integrity in my products and in my company that would allow this company to flourish. It showed me a new alternative and pathway that helped me create a multimillion dollar company.”
Years of media vitriol about substances like Ayahuasca have primed an automatic assumption that these substances can only produce intangible, aery-fairy experiences that remove us from the “real world.” Aubrey’s story is one of many examples showing how the pyschonaut’s journey can actually enhance the ability of the astronaut within us to thrive in the endeavors of the external world.
Many who have embarked on an Ayahuasca ceremony state that the medicine gives you the experience that you “need” at the time you ingest it. For some, it may be psychological healing, for others it creates a profound sense of connection to the Earth itself, but nearly all seem to claim that the experience is positively transformative.
This psychoactive alkaloid is found in the San Pedro Cactus in Peru, and yes, this one also produces heavy hallucinations and a deep inner experience. Aubrey shares how this substance catalyzed a distinction within him about the power of fear. “What I learned from that medicine is that, only when you’re at the bleeding edge of fearlessness, where you are not afraid, you are not stressed, you are not worried about anything, do you actually have free will. Otherwise your fears are going to drive you in different directions that are not necessarily of your highest integrity.” This may seem like obvious common sense at first, but how aware are you of our own fears? Stop for a moment and think of your ultimate goals in life. What would you cultivate in your life if you had no limits? Where would you travel to? Who would you spend time with? Now think of all of the reasons why you don’t believe you can do this. These are your fears, or to use the cliched, but useful acronym, false-evidence-appearing-real. Ultimately, fear is a negative expectation of some outcome. While fear can at times be an appropriate response to protect ourselves, how often is it merely outdated primal neurochemistry, unwittingly associating harmless modern social behaviors with saber tooth tigers?
If you are serious about flourishing, it begins with the Self. We cannot create effectively in the external world if our internal world is a mess. And we cannot come to know this mess without looking within. We are quick to find the external solutions—a treatment for this, a smart drug for that. Have you stopped and looked inside to see what you find?
Don’t take my word for it. Consider many of the great minds that have talked openly about the positive impact of psychonautic exploration for their victories in the external world. Steve Jobs famously spoke about LSD being one of the three most important things he did in his life. Bill Gates, while less open about it, has also confirmed his experiences with LSD. John Mackey dove into the depths of his being with breathwork. 2014 Voice & Exit speaker Dave Asprey talks about his transformative experiences with Ayahuasca. Nobel Prize winning chemist Kary Mullis, who revolutionized the field of biomedical research, experimented with psychonautic substances. Another Nobel winner, Francis Crick, was open about the role of psychedelics during the process of his discovery of the structure of DNA. When you look at the list, you wonder if any inventions or breakthroughs of thought were not associated with psychonautic exploration.
Anyone can plot a course with a map or compass; but without a sense of who you are, you will never know if you’re already home.
― Shannon L. Alder
As westerners, we are actively engaged in creating things in the external world. Yet all that we do and create in the external world is a result of our internal state. There is a vast world waiting within you, and while we may not all get a chance to venture into outer space in this lifetime, we can all turn inward and experience the depths of our own being.
Within this vast inner universe, we may find more than we expect.
What are your experiences with consciousness technologies? What consciousness technologies do you find to be the most effective?